Twenty-something Michelangelo Buonarroti spent two long years of sacrifice to transform a single block of marble into work that 'no artist could better.'
In 1499, a young sculptor from Florence completed a statue he referred to as 'the heart's image.' Two years previous, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni had accepted a commission from a French cardinal to create "the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.”
Young Michelangelo was confident in his ability to fulfill such a presumptuous task. The work was to become the Cardinal's tombstone inside a chapel in Saint Peter's in Rome. Michelangelo was instructed to carve. "a clothed Virgin Mary with a dead Christ naked in her arms."
The Pietà was quickly accepted and eventually recognized as one of the world's greatest sculptures.
In my new time slip novel, Michael Angelo & the Stone Mistress, the creation of the Pietà is an integral part of the plot. New York fashion photographer Michael Angelo Thomas travels to Florence after being deported from the USA. While in Italy, he discovers the truth about the memories that live within him.
In doing research for the book, I discovered some surprising things about the creation of Michelangelo's Pieta.
1. Carved from a single block of marble
After receiving the commission to carve the statue in 1497, Michelangelo bought a horse and travelled from Rome to the quarries of Carrara in Tuscany. He spent much of the winter of 1498 working with the stonemasons to handpick a stunning block of pure white Cararra marble. It was a particularly harsh February in the frigid, windswept Apuan Alps.
After he returned to Rome, he supervised the unloading and transport of the four-ton block of marble to the hovel where he would work day and night to the point of near-starvation, sleeping in his clothes at the foot of his creation in progress.
2. The only work he ever signed
Michelangelo spent two difficult years creating the Pietà. Not only travelling to Cararra but also doing research, and creating sketches of Jews and Romans living in Rome at the time. He wanted to accurately depict the Virgin Mary and Christ. Michelangelo also built models of terracotta and wax, working out details of the finished statue. His young apprentice, Piero Argento, urged him to rest and to eat, but often to no avail.
So, imagine Michelangelo's shock when after the Pietà was finally unveiled, rumours circulated that it was the work of another artist, Christoforo Solari from Milan. According to legend, Michelangelo hid in the chapel one night and carved an inscription across a band of marble running down the front of the Virgin Mary's robe: "Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this."
He later regretted it and never signed any of his other work.
3. Michelangelo was unknown when he carved the Pietà
At only twenty-two years of age, the commission to create the most 'beautiful work of marble in Rome' was a gamble for the Cardinal of St. Denis, Jean Bilhères, who was also the French Ambassador to the Holy See.
Michelangelo had arrived in Rome a year earlier to work on a statue of the wine god, Bacchus. The finished work was rejected by another high-ranking Cardinal who had commissioned the work, complaining the statue was "sinful and filled with sexual desire."
So when Michelangelo began work on the Pietà he had as much to prove to the Cardinals as to himself.
4. He was criticized for his depiction of Mary
Michelangelo depicts Mary as a young woman expressing sublime purity, seemingly on the edge of tears. Her face signals acceptance of the inevitable loss of Christ. Some have called it 'supernatural sadness.'
Mary is depicted as someone so young that she wouldn't likely be the mother of the older man she holds in her arms.
Michelangelo countered criticisms of Mary's youthful appearance. The mother of Jesus would have been about 45 years old at the time of Christ's crucifixion. Michelangelo explained her appearance was due to her sacred chastity.
"Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste?" he argued. "How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?"
5. The body proportions are all wrong
Although the statue appears realistic, Mary's head is too small for her body as it progressively widens down to the base (the rock of Golgotha, Calvary).
Michelangelo cleverly worked out the illusion of young Mary holding the lifeless corpse of Christ draped over her lap. In reality, it would be nearly impossible for a fully-grown man to be cradled full-length in a small woman's lap. Mary's body is concealed by the drapery of her robes which also frames her lean face in shadows of anguish. Every fold and bulge of the material covering Mary is convincingly real.
Michelangelo worked hard to perfect the linen and velvet robes. He soaked sheets in mud, bunching them up and letting them dry for closer study. Whatever the symbolic role of the drapery covering Mary, the natural look of her robes helps make the unrealistic proportions of a delicate woman holding a lifeless man in her arms seem completely believable.
6. The Pietà was almost destroyed in 1972
On Pentecost Sunday in 1972, Laslow Toth hopped over the railings in the Pieta Chapel inside St. Peter's Basilica and viciously attacked the Pietà with a heavy sculptor's hammer, screaming "I am Jesus Christ—risen from the dead!"
He landed fifteen blows on the marble statue, severing Mary's arm at the elbow, knocking off a chunk of her nose and chipping one of her eyelids. Before he could be subdued, Toth heavily damaged the veil, left eye and left cheek of Mary, as well as breaking off her left arm and hand.
The attack led to ten months of meticulous restoration by the Vatican of the two-metre tall Pietà (six feet, seven inches to be exact). Work on the statue work employed various techniques including those of modern dentistry. The final results were flawless to most observers.
To prevent further attacks, the Pietà was placed behind triple-layer glass in the Pietà Chapel. The bullet-proof glass is nearly an inch thick, forming a wall twenty-five feet in front of the Pietà.
7. Michelangelo created a terracotta model for the Pietà
American art historian Roy Doliner claimed to have discovered the original model created by Michelangelo before he carved the Pietà.
The terracotta model, which is thirty centimetres tall, (about twelve inches), was dated from the late 1400s. It was discovered sitting inside a mouldy box in an antique shop by a collector in Northern Italy. After extensive analysis, Doliner suggested it was a lost model Michelangelo used to guide his work.
It took another decade of investigation by a team of Italian art historians to confirm the terracotta statuette was indeed a work created by Michelangelo.
8. A secret signature was hidden for centuries
The attack on the Pietà by Laslow Toth resulted in an expected discovery. In examining the damaged left hand, the chief of research of the Vatican museums concluded that Michelangelo had inscribed the letter 'M' on Mary’s palm.
The announcement of the hidden ‘monogram’ made news around the world in 1972. The monogram theory was later hotly debated as to whether it was intentionally carved by Michelangelo or were just creases on Mary's palm. The Vatican refused to answer further inquiries.
Whether it was a deliberate or coincidental, and whether the 'M' is for Michael or Mary, the mystery has never been solved.